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Despite what Brexiters say, Turkey will not join the EU anytime soon.

The prospect of 80 million-strong Turkey joining the EU is a red herring used by the Brexiters to drum up fears about migration. In the recent agreement between Turkey and the EU on March 18th, the EU offered Ankara visa-free travel to countries in the Schengen area, and promised to open a chapter in the on-going accession talks, in exchange for its co-operation to stem the flow of irregular migration towards Europe. Brexiters see it as a sign that Turkish EU membership and a rapid surge of Turkish migrants is inevitable. But much water will flow through the Bosporus straits before Turkey joins the EU.

Turkey has been an EU candidate country since 1999, though it first applied for full membership of the (then) European Economic Community in 1987. Prime Minister David Cameron has been one of the most vocal champions for Turkish EU membership. He has argued that Turkey would make the EU both “stronger and richer”. But during the EU referendum campaign, he said that Turkey will not join “until the year 3000”.

Cameron appears to contradict himself, but his assessment is correct: Turkish membership is a long way off. The accession talks cover 35 areas, or chapters; only one chapter – on science and research co-operation – has been successfully negotiated. Fourteen chapters, including important ones covering judiciary, energy and economic co-operation, are effectively off-limits due to various vetoes and objections by Cyprus, France or the European Council. Sixteen chapters have been opened, including one on budgetary provisions which was part of the recent refugee deal. But Turkish progress on aligning its legislation with the EU acquis has been very slow.

Even if Britain were to support Turkish membership, other countries in the EU do not. And every EU member-state has a veto on a country’s accession to the EU. The Cyprus issue remains perhaps the thorniest obstacle. Though relations are improving between the two groups on the divided island, an agreement in Cyprus remains elusive.

France, the Netherlands and others are deeply sceptical about Turkish membership. The French government has repeatedly hinted that it would hold a referendum on the issue. That vote would be almost certainly won by the ‘Non’ camp. In the Netherlands, voters rejected the EU’s association agreement with Ukraine in April 2016, because of concerns that the agreement would advance Ukrainian EU membership, among other things. Should Turkish membership be agreed, another Dutch referendum with a similar result would be likely.

Some Central and Eastern European countries cringe at the prospect of an influx of Muslim migrants; Budapest, Bratislava and Warsaw see them as a threat to their predominantly Christian identity. Germany has been critical of Turkish membership too. Recent tensions between Berlin and Ankara over the Bundestag’s decision on June 2nd to recognise the Armenian genocide have not improved relations. In short, if Cameron wins the referendum and ‒ improbably ‒ reverts to his earlier enthusiasm about Turkish membership, he would face a wall of resistance across Europe. When the Juncker Commission ruled out EU enlargement during its term in office, it was stating a simple fact.

A more refined, but equally flawed argument used by the Brexiters is that visa-free access to the EU’s passport-free Schengen zone – offered under the refugee deal – will be accompanied by similar steps in the UK (which is not part of Schengen). Brexiters point to leaked diplomatic cables from the British embassy in Ankara. In that correspondence, dated from early May, a British diplomat writes that “one option would be to assess again the possibility” of lifting visa restrictions for some Turks. The Leave campaign, wrongly, has inflated this suggestion to the status of inevitability. Even so, visa-free access to the EU for 90 days is not the same as getting residency in Europe.

Ankara must fulfil 72 technical criteria to qualify for visa liberalisation. It may jump over this technocratic hurdle ‒ the Commission has been cheering it on ‒ but the Council and European Parliament must still give their blessing. That is not a done deal. The resignation of the EU’s ambassador to Ankara on June 14th is not a good omen. Besides, some asylum seekers have brought a legal challenge to the refugee deal before the European Court of Justice.

Tensions between Europe and Turkey are mounting. European politicians and policymakers are increasingly critical of Turkey’s backsliding on human rights, rule of law and democracy. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is in pursuit of complete and unchallenged control over the Turkish state. His government has tear-gassed civil rights protestors, shut down newspapers and jailed journalists. He dismissed his pro-European prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, and had him replaced by someone more obedient. His recent push to remove the constitutional immunity of elected parliamentarians suggests that he will go after pro-Kurdish politicians next. Besides, it is unclear whether Erdogan actually wants Turkey to join the EU, or whether he prefers to use the accession process as a means to extract benefits from Europe, when convenient.

The accession process is one of the few levers Europe has to put pressure on Ankara to reform, however unsuccessful that may currently seem. Ironically, should Britons vote for Brexit, it would further dilute that pressure. The European Union without the UK is a much less attractive club for Turkey to join. Brexit would remove Turkey’s most important ally for membership. Turks are also concerned that, following Brexit, a German-dominated EU would push for deeper integration around a core of eurozone members. For Ankara, British EU membership is a guarantee that the EU does not become a federal super-state.

The less likely it becomes that the EU would ever admit Turkey, the less leverage Brussels has to secure Turkish assistance in addressing the refugee crisis or to push Ankara on democratic reforms and human rights. Despite Erdogan’s antics, Turkey has a growing pro-Western middle class that wants closer ties with the EU; not because they seek jobs in Britain or elsewhere ‒ though some might ‒ but because of the values Europe stands for and the opportunities EU membership brings. Europe and Britain should stand with them – but Turkish EU membership is decades off, if ever. Don’t be fooled by the Brexit rhetoric.

Rem Korteweg is a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform (CER). This article was first published by the CER. More information can be found at

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